You're doing it all wrong--transform grading so it actually impacts student learning

Grade expectations: How to look at grading in a new light

You're doing it all wrong--transform grading so it actually impacts student learning

The teacher finishes giving instructions and sits down for students to begin completing the assignment. While students work, the teacher grades papers and prepares for the next hour, answering some questions here and there. As students finish the work, the assignments get turned in to be graded later.

If this scenario sounds familiar, then you are not alone. Teachers traditionally follow the model of present, practice, and let students work independently. There is a much better use of teacher time: feedback-in-action.

Feedback-in-action shifts a teacher from treating work as an autopsy to more like an ICU. Instead of waiting for students to make mistakes and leave class, the teacher makes formative assessments the norm.

Related content: 5 ways the homework gap is worse for students of color

There are a number of ways to make feedback-in-action a standard by doing the following at regular intervals during class: Check some answers as a class, spot check students’ papers, have students who finished early take a mini-answer key to assist students, and check partial products with small groups. Students no longer wait until the next day to know whether they got the concept or not.

By going to a small group and checking two or three questions, the teacher and/or peers can clear up misconceptions and fix problems. More importantly, students who know what they are doing can receive more than praise; teachers can expand, elaborate, and dig deeper to raise a student’s proficiency.
Students in my school expect teachers to review, discuss, and check work frequently. By the time a student hands in an assignment, it often does not even need to be graded. Many students are appreciative, as they avoid completing an entire assignment incorrectly. Discussions with annotating papers with highlighters, underling, and graphical representations, also help students and aids memory.

By the teacher giving feedback to everyone—especially all students, regardless of being right or wrong—the stigma of the teacher helping only students unable to complete the assignment is erased. Everyone knows the routine is spot-checking assignments and offering more than praise. No one groans when they see the teacher approaching, as the students hear the teacher is there to help whether one is right or wrong versus only helping students who do not get the lesson. Grades are given at the end of the assignment, and the teacher ensures students have a gradual release of responsibility and work independently.

Feedback-in-action is taught as the way school operates. The thinking routine Read-Answer-Discuss, or how to be RAD in school, is repeated every day. Students see, hear, and model the need to make chances to learn without fear of failure, as the teacher needs students to first have something to discuss to build on. There are students who are afraid, but the teacher states students do not need enablers, and the best way to learn is to describe what one read and take a chance. The product rule, or creating an answer first, disarms students because the teacher honors the answer and uses the diagnosis to plan further interaction.

Some students will say, “How can I do this question if I’ve never done it?” The teacher gently reminds students there is always the first time, and the teacher needs the student to attempt the question, so the teacher knows what to do next. There is the comparison of errors and mistakes are expected when someone is new, and students cannot build bigger muscles by the teacher doing push-ups anymore than the student can learn by the teacher doing the work.

Most students eventually enjoy the no-risk, supportive environment where mistakes and learning are the normal process in school. Students still work independently and demonstrate mastery, but teachers do not expect everyone to get everything at the same time and the same rate. Being RAD and getting feedback-in-action heads off many problems. The way the school operates, with partial, frequent checking in lieu of only grading at the end, gives the teacher guidance in real time on how best to assist students. Feedback is nothing new, but schools often overlook it in the pursuit of the final grade. Another ancillary concern feedback-in-action improves is reducing anxiety, as students feel secure in putting forth their best effort.

Schools have long known grading is often a haphazard event which does not express what is the intended purpose. Feedback-in-action bridges the gap by giving teachers instant access to each student’s performance and increases time on task. These goals are nothing new. Harold Rugg in 1918 in The Elementary School Journal, complained grades often do not have a common meaning and are unreliable. Marjorie Powell, in the October 1979 edition of Educational Leadership, states teachers need to focus on ensuring all students are on task and doing what is expected. Carol Ann Tomlinson in March 2001 in Educational Leadership stated feedback needs to be regular, useful, and tell students what to do next. Feedback-in-action makes checking papers and issuing grades a key part of the instructional process.

Technology has the power to make feedback-in-action more meaningful than ever in the history of education. When students complete assignments online, teachers can start checking work and offering direct instruction in real time. The opportunities are endless, as teachers can catch a student early on before mistakes become ingrained. Furthermore, students who are successful can have assistance to expand, elaborate, and enrich learning. Key in this process is that the teacher actually offers feedback to all students regardless of being right or wrong. Students should no longer dread the teacher coming to the student and feeling dumb and called out. Once students know the teacher seeks improvement in everyone, the trauma of feeling slow, behind, or lost, can be erased.

Beware! As you read recommendations on grading, most improvements are so wedded to the past, there is little new. Traditions die a hard, long death, regardless of efficacy. Grading does not have to be a ranking and sorting of what students learned. There is great incompetence in letting a student sit and fail without interruption. Grading must move from an after-the-fact endeavor to a meaningful practice that has the power to transform the learning of students. My school shifted to feedback-in-action, and now students expect teachers to offer feedback on partial products and look beyond arbitrary percentages. Even when a student has what will traditionally be an A or a B, the teacher now points out key factors that need to be learned regardless of the gradebook. Students feel disarmed, as learning is then for learning’s sake.

What are you waiting for? Get up from behind your desk and start checking for learning benchmarks each step of the way. The students will see learning as a collaborative effort.

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